Harvard announced Saturday that law professor Ronald S. Sullivan Jr., who represented embattled film producer Harvey Weinstein until recently, would not continue as faculty dean of an undergraduate house after his term ends on June 30, following pressure from students, according to the New York Times.
Weinstein is set to stand trial on rape and other charges in June. Sullivan’s decision to represent Weinstein highlighted the tension between the principle of affording legal counsel to the accused and the college standing on the side of the victims of sexual abuse.
Sullivan, along with his wife Stephanie Robinson, who is a lecturer at the law school, has been faculty deans of Winthrop House, one of the university’s residential houses for undergraduates since 2009. They were the first black faculty deans in Harvard’s history. Faculty deans are tasked with supporting students academically and personally, as well as helping with social activities.
Students began voicing their disapproval of his decision to join Weinstein’s defense team in January of this year, believing his decision disqualified him from supporting and mentoring students.
A wave of protests eventually pushed the administration to say they would conduct a review of the climate in the Winthrop House, which has hosted a student sit-in and saw a lawsuit stemming from a fracas between a protest leader and a pair of staff members who supported Sullivan.
Sullivan told the Times that he was aware that race was playing a role in the school’s handling of the issue.
“It is not lost on me that I’m the first African-American to hold this position,” he said earlier in the year. “Never in the history of the faculty dean position has the dean been subjected to a ‘climate review’ in the middle of some controversy.”
The tension prompted Harvard College Dean Rakesh Khurana to send an email to students and staff at the house, informing them that they would not be renewing Sullivan as head of Winthrop House.
“Over the last few weeks, students and staff have continued to communicate concerns about the climate in Winthrop House to the college,” Khurana wrote. “The concerns expressed have been serious and numerous. The actions that have been taken to improve the climate have been ineffective, and the noticeable lack of faculty dean presence during critical moments has further deteriorated the climate in the house. I have concluded that the situation in the house is untenable.”
During the review, current and former staff members told the Harvard Crimson they experienced “a workplace climate of hostility and suspicion” while Sullivan and Robinson were at the helm.
Sullivan and Robinson said they were “surprised and dismayed by the action Harvard announced today,” according to a joint statement. “We believed the discussions we were having with high-level university representatives were progressing in a positive manner, but Harvard unilaterally ended those talks.”
“We are sorry that Harvard’s actions and the controversy surrounding us has contributed to the stress on Winthrop students at this already stressful time,” the statement continued.
Sullivan and Robinson will still retain their positions at the law school. Sullivan is the director of the school’s Criminal Justice Institute. He also represented the family of Mike Brown.